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A South African visa for the Dalai Lama? Not as simple as it sounds.

South Africa made the choice most in its national interest in not granting a visa to the Dalai Lama, a decision that risked angering China, a major partner, argues guest blogger Zama Ndlovu.

By Zama NdlovuGuest blogger / October 7, 2011

Wits University students and lecturers hold placards as they take part in a public march to protest the cancellation of the Dalai Lama's visit to South Africa, in Johannesberg, South Africa on Wednesday.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters


Johannesburg, South Africa

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s BFF received a big fat “NOT YES” from the South African government, the Arch took the (in)decision rather personally. Fortunately for our Tutu, we South Africans, having a flair for dramatic tendencies, dichotomized and moralized the issue into good vs evil, with the country’s integrity and pearly gate invite hanging in balance. We judged our government for its “disgraceful”, “shameful” stance against human rights and all that good stuff. Collectively we decided that the foreign affairs visa application queue is as good as any place to decide on our foreign policy, just as the ministry of international relations and cooperation had spontaneously made up two contradicting policies on Libya within one week, a few months ago. Maybe it’s time the South African government define a clear and predictable foreign policy and communicate it?

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It’s really cute that we thought this visa business to be a black and white issue, our favorite colors. One was either for morals or for immoral investment. Although not too eager to point our government towards world economies with money so clean it could be presented with 70 virgins dressed in white, we spotted the evil investments. Mind you, the South African jury is still out on the morality of foreign direct investment, since just last week the nationalisation discussion was “negatively affecting foreign investments.”

Furthermore we immediately limited the terms of reference for the discussion, shying away from the broader socio-economic impacts of the effect of these dirty investments. This was a question of how the world would look at us and our morality, and not all about putting at risk much-needed direct investment in such economically turbulent times.

With the number of competing issues that were on the table, it should have been perspicuous to all of us that this visa business was not an elementary decision for our government. While picketing for an hour or two at a local consulate, before returning to our middle-class homesteads in time for dinner and the 7 p.m. news, we were barely bothered by the noticeable absence of representation from other members of our society.

A country’s foreign policy is meant to further its own national interest, first and foremost. Anyone who has not been in a coma in the last year would know that ours are sustainable and meaningful economic and employment growth, especially with the looming threat of the ANC Youth League eating our cheese. Of course the definition of sustainability, especially in relation to China’s economic and political practices is an important consideration, but let’s focus on South Africa for now. In this globalized society, with the open economy that South Africa finds itself with, foreign policy is a key strategic tool in achieving its primary mandate of economic and employment growth.


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